I recently had the opportunity to catch with Tony Bradshaw, VP of Internet Business and Technology at The Lampo Group, Inc. a Dave Ramsey Company. Tony has built an analytics & optimization program at DaveRamsey.com, which includes SiteCatalyst, Discover and Test & Target. I wanted to find out the lessons Tony had learned in making his program a success. Since many businesses face similar challenges, I felt his perspective might help my readers.

Tony graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1993. He spent six years at a small business manufacturing company doing engineering and network admin work. He made the jump to a full time Internet junkie in March 2001 when he joined Dave Ramsey, noted author, radio talk show host and entrepreneur.

JB: Tony, tell me about DaveRamsey.com. I know you’ve experienced phenomenal growth recently.

TB: The timing of us talking is really interesting considering all the recent economic issues. Dave actually started the company back in 1992. As best I can tell, leadership took the company online around 1996-1998. Back then, the site was basically an online store and a couple of pages of brochureware. It’s amusing to look at the design from back then and see how it has progressed.

In late 2000, the company took the plunge and hired our first full-time web employee (we call them team members). In 2001, it was apparent we needed to step it up a bit more and 4 more joined the web effort giving us 5. I was in that group of hires. That’s a pretty good ratio for a small business of 33 employees. From there, our web efforts have grown into a team of 43 including programmers, marketers and creatives. Over the last 3.5 years, we’ve added an average of 10 people per year to the team.

I believe the thing that makes us somewhat unique is that we’ve got a well diversified revenue stream through our website. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It creates a lot of work and planning to stay on top of things, but it allows us to generate significant revenue for the number of visitors we have. We do B2B, B2C, lead generation, advertising, a subscription website, and last year we developed our own online learning platform to deliver our offline Financial Peace University Class. Currently, we’re in phase II with the FPU Online class taking it to businesses/corporations as an HR benefit. After that, we’ll develop it for military financial training. There’s always a lot to do, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.

JB: What’s your role at the company?

I started with Dave Ramsey in 2001 after spending 6.5 years as an manufacturing engineer/network admin/web freelancer. In 2002, I took over the web efforts. Currently my title is VP, Internet Business and Technology. I believe we’re setup a little differently than most companies since I actually get to oversee web development, creative and marketing. I think the best way to explain it is that I view our team as web consultants. If one of the business units goes to lunch and comes back with an idea on a napkin, they send it to us and we flesh it out and they consult with them on whether or not we should do it. If it makes the cut, then we do it.

JB: Like most small companies, I imagine your first web efforts were focused on “getting it done.” When did you first make the conceptual shift to using data to drive your decisions? Was there a moment that made you shift your thinking?

TB: For me the mental shift came a lot earlier than it did for the company. I was blessed to be hired by a web visionary who still works with me, and he conceptually was pushing data use early on. However, it was a “before its time idea” for the company/executives, and it really didn’t get the focus it deserved.

Things developed rapidly in our business, and with incredible growth, it’s easy to miss opportunities like using data to drive business decisions. While we were “loosely” using Webtrends in 2000, switched to Urchin in 2001, then Google Analytics in 2005-ish, we weren’t “leveraging” the data. I knew we would have to make some changes to really make our plans for a new website successful, and I knew we were letting visitors and revenue slip through the cracks. We researched the next step and landed on Omniture. Planning for the new website was the catalyst. I wanted to make sure we had the best tools to make sure the job was done right.

JB: Once you knew you wanted to get and use more data, how did you go about convincing the rest of the organization to go along with you?

TB: Great question. I had to fight hard to get approval. Going from a free Google Analytics package to Omniture can create a little sticker shock for executives.

We did a lot of research. Originally I had singled out a product called ClickTracks, but we were growing so fast, I wasn’t sure it would be a long term solution. We did our homework, gave the execs options, and haggled over SAAS (software as a service) not being something our company does. I laid out a thorough plan of where we were missing opportunity, and I showed how the losses would only get bigger as our visitors increased. In the end, it came down to 2 things. 1) showing them a 800% ROI on the software + employee, 2) I had enough credibility and trust with leadership to make it happen.

We rolled it out in August 2007. We just finished our 1st year, and we ended up around 579% ROI.

JB: Did you invest in human capital to drive your analytics deployment? How did you make the case for this to senior management?

TB: Yes. From experience, I had seen how we used Google Analytics. Everyone was always so busy that no one really had time to use the tool effectively to drive results. I knew that to really get the most out of analytics we would need to dedicate a full time person to leveraging the technology. In my pitch I required that we also invest in someone that would spend their day combing our site looking for opportunities. It’s paid off.

To get executive leadership on board I really drove home a couple of different areas that were very evident and then made the case that there were dozens of opportunities hidden in our site that would produce results monthly.

JB: Once you began using SiteCatalyst, was it a natural progression to start running live tests & targeting content? Was this a harder sell internally?

TB: I really wanted to climb one mountain at a time, but you have to take an opportunity when you have it. My original plan was to work with SiteCatalyst for a year then step up to Discover 2.0. Due to the nature of one business model, the leader of our live events department approached me in spring ’08 about technology that would geo target our visitors. An opportunity presented itself, and I ran with it. However, it wasn’t easy to get approval.

We spent months prepping the argument for Test & Target to get 3 executives to buy in. Omniture staff worked with us by pulling our SiteCatalyst data into Discover 2.0. From that we discovered that about 10% of our visitors from specific high profile markets were making it to the right pages. We made the case that if we could just get that number up by 5-10% we would meet our ROI goals of 400% on our spend for the tool. I said we could hit that goal in 90 days, and we did.

JB: Many of my clients ask me where they should start testing. How did you pick your first area of focus?

TB: We had a lot of places we could have started, but several jumped out as better quick ROI spots. Since our executive team put a 90 day 400% ROI requirement on us or they’d pull the plug, we focused on quick ROI over long-term, sizeable ROI. We also built the case for TNT based on geo-targeting, so we had to validate the results with geo as well. This limited us to 1 primary product and a couple of secondary ideas that could leverage geo-targeting.

JB: Tell me about how you’ve used geo-targeting on your site.

TB: Intially, we focused on using geo-targeting for our Live Events group. Dave Ramsey presents about 14 financial events per year and about 8 business events per year. We have around 100,000+ people attend the events each year all over the country. Web accounts for 60% of the tickets sales and virtually all of the business leads for the high end events. For the Total Money Makeover LIVE financial events (primary audience), marketing consists mainly of local billboards and ads delivered by the radio show in the local market. What we found was that only 10% of the people from that market that visited our website ever made it to the Live Events pages. Our assumptions were that they didn’t know about the event.

We used geo-targeting to identify the visitor then present a banner on our homepage relative to their market. That is, an Atlanta visitor would see an Atlanta banner on our homepage.

Our next step was to improve the experience once we knew the visitor was interested in the event. We used Test & Target to modify the following pages and checkout process to follow the Atlanta theme and the particular creative that the visitor responded to. We saw significantly uplift from these changes.

After all of that was in place and working, we went back to markets like California where we knew we had visitors, but didn’t have a Live Event in the area. We used geo-targeting to do what I like to call “geo-exclusion” marketing. We removed Live Events banners from those markets and replaced them with other product offers that we could ship to the customer or they could use online.

Between the two geo-targeting initiatives, we were able to meeting our 90 day 400% ROI goal. Now we’re just turning up the notch as we have time.